United States, 1956
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Carroll Baker, Fran Bennett
Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat from the book by Edna Ferber
William C. Mellor
Giant makes for an interesting case study of a "classic" American motion picture. Although it was a huge financial success for Warner Brothers, the prints were allowed to fall into a shocking state of disrepair over the years. And Giant's reputation, which is based in part on a host of positive reviews and 10 Academy Award nominations, greatly exceeds its actual quality. Big, sprawling, and more than a little sudsy, Giant might have been remembered as little more than a lavish, big-screen soap opera, except for one thing -- released posthumously, it was the last feature appearance of icon James Dean. Dean, whose "live fast, die young" creed cost him his life in a 1955 car crash, had only three starring roles (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant), but his death accorded immortality to his image.
The restoration of Giant, using the Technicolor dye transfer printing process, was a colossal effort, and the results are impressive. There are a number of noticeable variations in color and contrast, but the print is clean and glitch-free. However, unlike several other recent restorations (like The Wild Bunch), no edited scenes have been re-introduced. The man behind this resurrection of Giant, director George Stevens' son, has stated that his father considered the theatrical release to be the perfect cut.
Although Giant offers a solid evening's entertainment, it falls short of true brilliance. An epic storyline is not inherently great. When compared to some of the transcendent films of the era (for example, those of Bergman, Kurusowa, Ray, and Kubrick), Giant's limitations become apparent. Because of the mystique surrounding Dean, the movie has achieved a stature out of proportion with its actual virtues.
Giant, based on Edna Ferber's novel, starts out in Texas during the early 1920s. What opens as an ode to the Lone Star state quickly turns into a indictment of an overbearing, racist culture. Giant goes to great pains to illustrate the callous discrimination faced by women and Mexican-descended Texans. "Real men" often regarded the former as property and the latter as sub-human. It was the 19th century cotton plantation philosophy translated 1000 miles west and 100 years into the future. The biggest character arc in Giant focuses on one man's recognition of the narrowness of these views.
That man is Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), a wealthy landowner who presides over a 595,000 acre Texas ranch called the Benedict Reata. While Bick is in Maryland to purchase a prize stallion, he becomes enraptured with Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), an attractive, educated, independent young woman. The two are soon married and Leslie accompanies Bick back to Texas. Once there, she has trouble adjusting -- not only to the climate, but to the domestic arrangements. Bick's sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), who manages the house, resents Leslie's arrival, and does little to hide her displeasure. Meanwhile, Leslie befriends a local worker named Jett Rink (James Dean), a sullen man who falls in love with her. She also begins to take an interest in the "wetbacks" living in a nearby village, even though Bick considers them to be beneath his notice.
Giant chronicles a quarter-century of life on the Reata Ranch. It follows Bick and Leslie's relationship from courtship through young parenthood to late middle-age. It shows Jett's rise from ranch hand to oil tycoon (a well on his small piece of property pays big dividends). And it illustrates how children don't always follow in their parents' footsteps. Bick and Leslie's son (played by a young Dennis Hopper) elects not to take over the ranch, opting instead to become a doctor. And one of their daughters (Carroll Baker) falls for the aging-but-still-charming Jett.
The handling of racial intolerance is similar to that of John Sayles' recent Lone Star. In Giant, although the approach is tinged by perceptions that are forty years out-of-date, it's still surprisingly acute. Leslie is a liberated free-thinker and, although Bick captures her love in the first reel, it takes the entire film before he earns her respect by recognizing that Mexican Americans deserve to be treated as human beings.
Giant is often referred to as "a James Dean film", but, based on screen time, Dean gets third billing. The movie's portrait of Jett is incomplete, but what we see is intriguing. He's a lonely man, tortured by envy and unattainable love. Even when he has amassed enough money to buy almost anything, he's still profoundly unhappy. Ultimately, his life is an ironic tragedy, and Dean effectively conveys a certain degree of his bitterness and world-weariness. However, Jett's plight doesn't connect with the audience on an emotional level. We understand it, but aren't moved.
Giant's protagonist is Leslie. She's the one truly "good" person in the film -- a woman of strong, undeniable principles who seeks to bring reform to Riata, despite the odds. Yet, even though the story is told from her perspective, the most complex character is Bick, who shows a wide spectrum of human vices and virtues. He can be sweet and loving or cold and cruel. There are times when the audience roots for him, and times when they can't stand him. Hudson's performance is exemplary.
The state of Texas is as much of a character as Leslie, Bick, and Jett. It's referred to variously as a different country, the best place on Earth, and a state of mind. Giant stops short of lionization, however, taking a number of sharp, cutting jabs at the insular arrogance of many traditionally-held beliefs. In the end, we're left with the impression that Texas is changing, but far too slowly, and not always for the better.
Hollywood doesn't make films like Giant any more -- big, melodramatic epics that place storytelling above time constraints. Aggressive editing could have shortened Giant considerably, but the three hour twenty-one minute running time permits the tale to breathe. And, even at this length, there are times when events feel rushed or compressed (for example, Leslie announces that she's pregnant; in the next scene, she's holding the baby). So, although Giant may not be a classic in the purest sense of the word, it's a fine example of a virtually-extinct genre.